Seth Wood - Back In the New York Groove

Published: 20 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 198, May, 2011

In February I decided a long overdue break from the hectic and draining side of London was necessary. I chose to have a relaxing holiday in LA in consideration of possibly moving there in the future. However I thought that I should check out some other states while I was there including New York. I just couldn’t visit this state without getting a piece done by Seth Wood... 

Currently residing at Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I got in touch with Seth and to my surprise I received a prompt response and an eager attitude to do the design which I had asked for, always a positive aspect to a tattooist! Before I let him loose on me though, I have questions to ask – there’s no way I’m asking them while I’m in the chair… 

“I grew up in a really sleepy town, and lived a relatively tattoo-free existence until my friends and I were old enough to drive.  We’d head up to Philadelphia every other weekend to see punk shows and buy records.  But even then, the only tattoos I’d see were band logos on kids’ arms. I got my first tattoo when I was 19 by Erik Reith at Bodygraphics in Philadelphia.  These days he’s one of the owners of Seventh Son in San Francisco. I wish I could say I still had it, but I didn’t know what I was doing and drew it myself, so it’s buried under another tattoo at this point.”

In 1997, a friend of Seth’s suggested he should get into tattooing. At the time Seth dismissed the idea but nonetheless started picking up tattoo magazines. As Seth so creatively puts it: 

“There were so many alien foetuses and twisted out, desert chrome coffee cups in those things, but compared to what I knew of tattooing, it was exciting.  It’s as though I already liked listening to songs on my one-stringed guitar, but then I opened up this magazine and saw a picture of a guitar with the other five strings, and my
mind was blown all over the page by the possibilities.”

His sudden interest in tattooing was not just out of nowhere. Seth has been drawing his whole life. Even in kindergarden taking requests to draw superheroes, dinosaurs and the like. Then going on to draw for fanzines, show flyers and even girls he had a crush on when he was a bit older. My personal preference for a tattooist is someone as enthusiastic about drawing as Seth, I think someone with a genuine passion for drawing gives the tattooist the ability to create a much more detailed and unique tattoo. This is evident throughout Seth’s work:

“It was just always a background part of everything.  For whatever reason, tattooing was just the first thing I came upon that seemed accessible, where drawing could be the primary thing.

In the beginning, I made weird shaped scars on friends for a couple years that we were calling tattoos.  Then I fell ass-backwards into a summer job at a street shop at the Jersey Shore… it was very seasonal and they really just needed a warm body in a chair for the tourist rush, but when I went back the next summer, after I had graduated from college, somebody else was using my station at the shop - its kind of crazy. If I had stayed there as planned, I probably would have been tattooing for another year or two at most, and then gone back to school.  Instead, Mike Siderio at Rebel Image hired me. He was, by a long shot, the best tattooist in the area and over about 3 years of working with him, he taught me everything I missed from an apprenticeship: needle making, mixing pigments, machine basics. You know… all the stuff that no one bothers to learn anymore.”

Seth agrees that an apprenticeship is the best way to become a tattooist; “otherwise your ability will always be two steps behind your ambitions and unlike now, where you can see everyone’s work online, I much prefer to travel to meet and talk with tattooists in different towns and to see their flash.”

Priding himself on basing his work around traditional styles of tattooing, he certainly does some unique and quirky work: 

“It’s all based out of traditional styles of tattooing. I do some weird images I guess but a tattoo of a cat wearing Edwardian formal dress is really just a matter of making substitutions into a Gibson girl.  I got a lot of fine line influence from working with Mike - he totally killed it with portraits and realism, so even though I want a typical tattoo to look really strong and readable, I like to tweak out little details most of the time, like a tattoo within the tattoo – a bonus for whoever bothers to take a closer look!

“I really love finding the spaces to insert that extra narrative. Like a lot of the stuff I do seems really arbitrary, but some seemingly random things are a kind of biographic iconography. Mice, for example, make a lot of cameo appearances in my tattoos, and they’re a tribute to my grandfather, who was a paleontologist who dedicated his life to the study of rodents. 

It’s fun in a kind of mischievous way, because you feel like you’re getting away with something.  But I think it works out to everyone’s benefit.  It definitely makes for a body of work that you’re much more attached to.”

When discussing influences, Seth is equally as candid:

“I’d like my tattoos to look like Chris Conn tattoos if he ran out of small liner needles, and was in a hurry to finish the shading! 

Outside of tattooing, John Audoban and Walton Ford - natural history field guide meets frontier adventure kind of stuff - and Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi. That might not be as obvious, but all of those antique woodblocks are so good at capturing a moment from which you can tell a whole story. I love that narrative quality. Even if you’re not doing Japanese tattoos, there’s a lot to learn from those materials.”

In the autumn of 2009, Seth was invited by the extremely talented owner of Saved Tattoo - Scott Campbell - to join the shop. After traveling for two years prior to this tattooing from city to city, totaling over 30 trips to about 25 different cities, Seth graciously accepted a place he could call his home. 

“Everyone in the shop was really fun to be around, and - I’m not a big Feng Shui guy - even just the physical space in that shop would get me excited to tattoo.  I wasn’t looking for a new gig in NYC, but I was hanging around there a lot when I was home in between trips (I was part way through two years of voluntary homelessness and tattooing on the road). But Scott Campbell invited me on, and it seemed like the best place for me to land when I was ready to come back to New York. 

A year later when I officially moved back to Brooklyn, it was a completely different shop.  It changed locations. Chris (O’Donnel) bought into the shop.  As mellow as the ambience is at Saved, it’s been a pretty dynamic process, watching the shop grow and shrink on an almost weekly basis, but it’s pretty exciting to be a part of this animal, since it only seems to be getting stronger… soon it will take flight and vanquish all her enemies.” 

Seth is also a man who believes that you shouldn’t be allowed to call yourself a tattooist these days unless you are contributing to the glut of tattoo paintings that are out there:

“Most of the stuff I’ve painted has been specific to a project, like someone’s show or book, or done as promotion for a guest spot or a convention.  It’s all very connected to tattooing.  But I hope that once I get a little more settled into my routine in NYC, that I can start cranking out some paintings that are totally independent
of the tattoos I do. 

And woodworking is awesome! Our TV is sitting on a credenza I built it to fit our apartment.  There’s something exceptionally rewarding about making something that has actual ongoing use-value.  Plus it’s reassuring to know that, if the apocalypse gets going next year, as scheduled, I can fashion an emergency shanty or maybe a canoe
out of the rubble.

You know, the tattoo industry provides tattooists with a captive audience for their paintings or whatever else they like to do.  I don’t have any expectations that, taken out of that context, anyone would find my creative output particularly relevant or notable. Plus, when you do step outside of tattooing, you really come to appreciate how much autonomy you’re given as a tattooist.  

I did the cover design and illustrations for a vegan cookbook this past summer.  It was a fun challenge, but the amount of art direction involved at every step of a typical design job can be frustrating.  I’d rather blast tribal arm bands all day then have to get multi-stage approval from a committee before my design can go on a coffee cup for some chain restaurant.”

Interview over, it’s time for role reversal. Seth showed me my tattoo design. I was both excited and impatient about getting it done. After a few hours of redrawing the design to fit properly on my chest, we began. The most unbearable three hours for me to sit through contrasting with the most fun three hours for Seth inflicting untold amounts of pain on my chest, torso, ribs and hips. 

All I can say is it was definitely worth it. When not tattooing, you can catch Seth riding bikes, snowboarding, relaxing in nude hot springs or chilling with his dog, Pubes. He may also eventually have his website finished at www.sethwoodtattoo.com or eventually he might get a portfolio together to put out in the shop.

 

Saved Tattoo

426 Union ave 
Brooklyn 
NYC

Credits

Text & Photography: Ihsan Kemal

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